It should be disturbing to deep-rooted voters who know their North Carolina history that Deborah Ross, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, is under fire for defending civil liberties.
There was a time – a long time – when North Carolinians took a proprietary pride in the U.S. Bill of Rights: indeed, a time when legend held that this state had delayed ratification of the 1787 Constitution precisely because it omitted a bill of rights. North Carolina, so the story went, withheld its consent until James Madison and others promised to submit one.
There probably is truth in the old story, although a competing legend linked this state with Rhode Island as a deadbeat resisting the federal assumption of the Revolutionary War debt. True or merely mostly or somewhat true, it was once a source of pride. Remember?
Skip forward to another time – the early 1970s – when many Tar Heels took a special pride in Sam Ervin Jr.’s leadership of a U.S. Senate subcommittee on constitutional rights and his starring role in exposing Richard Nixon’s Watergate gang and their below-the-belt punches. Ervin was alert from the first to Nixon’s crime-fighting agenda, featuring such measures as “preventive detention,” a weasel term for imprisonment without trial.
Without Sam Ervin’s zeal for civil liberties, the shortcuts and cheating of the Nixon years would have been even more menacing and dangerous – even as North Carolina in the 1920s might have suffered the enactment of an embarrassing “monkey law” restricting the teaching of modern biology but for Ervin’s youthful opposition as a state legislator.
Of course, every politician who isn’t a numbskull poses as a friend of civil liberties, the mother’s milk of constitutional values – at least so long as the rules pose no inconvenient risks. Abstract embrace is easy. But in the real world of this annoying election year, Richard Burr and his attack-ad artists are lavishing a mint on the defamation of Deborah Ross. And why? From 1994 to 2002, before entering legislative politics, she headed the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. She even defended children of 13 against trial as adults – with its risk of imprisoning them among sex predators and drug peddlers. Horrors!
The Burr attack-ad campaign is the usual tissue of slurs and distortions (Ross is accused in one ad of “anti-religious activism (that) fit right into San Francisco or Manhattan but not ... North Carolina”) and is deliberately worded to defeat reasoned discussion. It is said that the disgusting prevalence of attack ads is explained by their success in driving down the vote for their targets. Perhaps, but they are no compliment to public intelligence.
There are probably tens of thousands who walk the streets of this state who don’t know what is in the Bill of Rights (apart from a distorted conception of the Second Amendment) and resist thinking through the knotty problems posed by the everlasting clash of liberty and history with popular impulse. But from time to time, we have a vivid reminder. It remained for the Nixon gang to furnish proof of the fragility of such values as free speech and press, protection of personal privacy, jury trial, speedy and public trial, reasonable bail and state rights – the core of the Bill of Rights. And let us not forget the writ of Habeas Corpus, in the body of the Constitution. Now it is Burr’s turn to trifle with our liberties.
Shame on him and his ad men for slandering Ross and cheapening the rule of law.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.